Beard Gives Madison High Marx (Federalist 10)

While watching a Hillsdale College Online Course on The Federalist Papers, I discovered why I so intensely dislike John Green.

It seems that Charles Beard, a noted political scientist of a progressive mindset, caused an uproar in academia in 1913.

Beard, in his own studies of the Federalist Papers, came to a startling conclusion regarding the political philosophy of James Madison.

It all came down to Madison’s definition of “factions.” Madison defined them in Federalist 10 thusly:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

The problem arose when Beard determined that James Madison’s talk of “factions” in Federalist 10 was not in reference to what we today call “special interests.”

According to the Dr. Paul Moreno, Beard instead believed that Madison was actually referring to political parties, which included Madison’s own Federalists, along with Washington, Adams, and so forth.

If this is the case, then the inference can be drawn, as Beard evidently did, that Madison was glibly alluding to politicians like himself quarreling over the right to exercise power and expand their personal interests.

Such reasoning led to Beard being called a Marxist, but his book nevertheless remained quite influential.

Why does any of this matter?

It matters mainly because Beard’s ideas, which I believe are recorded in his 1913 book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, have been extraordinarily influential in modern, popular accounts of American history.

This was plain to see in a 2004 PBS documentary on the American Revolution which I saw on a Netflix DVD a few weeks ago.

Much emphasis was placed on the Founders’ desire to achieve gentlemanly dignity on the level of the crowned heads of Europe.

Similar cynicism is on display at John Green’s YouTube channel CrashCourse, which includes a playlist on American History.

In one video which is characteristic of all of his content, Green takes every opportunity to portray the leaders of the American revolution as greedy, power-hungry bigots.

His annoyingly smug display of ignorance is, I’m quite certain, attributable to an understanding of American history stemming from Charles Beard. I would not be surprised if recreational marijuana use was also a factor.

(Incidentally, I highly doubt that Green, best known for authoring The Fault in Our Stars, has enough historical literacy to even comprehend that Beard’s philosophy was likely popularized by the late Howard Zinn, which was in turn disseminated in legions of American public schools.)

Charles Beard’s linking of James Madison’s talk of factions to Marxist theory has thus led to scholarly confusion, resulting in ignoramuses like Green endlessly spreading misinformation about history.

(For more on Green’s ignorance, see this blog post by J. S. B. Morse.)

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We Cannot Trust Modern Depictions of the Past. Watch Old Movies Instead.

When it was announced in May that ABC’s Agent Carter would be cancelled, I wondered if it would have succeeded if it had been kinder in its depiction of the Greatest Generation.

The male denizens of 1940s America in Captain America: The First Avenger were heroic stalwarts willing to fight and die for a noble cause.

By contrast, nearly every male character in Agent Carter is a portly desk-jockey with no regard for women. It would almost be caricature, except that the show takes itself completely seriously.

But even a brief examination of a few movies actually made in that era demonstrate a far different world. Women are respected by men as equals, being strong characters in their own right, and are often in positions of authority themselves.

Francis Schaeffer wrote that all art reflects the worldview of the artist. Logically, classic films depicting noble treatment of women in contemporary times are in line with a worldview that endorses such behavior in reality.

In a time when modern period pieces pull out all the stops to remind us just how stupid and backward our ancestors were, a more accurate picture of the past can be found in classic films.

In the 45 minute televised installment that was the pilot episode of Agent Carter, the eponymous heroine, played by Haylie Atwell, struts about post-World War II New York City as a secret agent.

The show takes every opportunity to remind us that all men are fat, lazy, sexist pigs, except for the subservient Jarvis (James D’Arcy).

One handicapped colleague who does stick up for Carter is immediately chastised by our heroine for thinking that she couldn’t fight her own battles. One wonders how exactly Carter wants men to behave.

Another fellow chews out a waitress, stating that the Nazis who put him in a POW camp gave him better food. I found myself contemplating how that rotund gentleman would ever have been accepted for military service.

Agent Carter isn’t the only modern TV show to follow this trend. A Christmas special for the popular BBC drama Sherlock re-imagines the show in Victorian London.

Once again, nearly all male characters are unrivaled sexists. In this take on the 1890s, Women are treated as mere chattel. The episode’s antagonists are a bizarre cult of suffragettes whose murders Holmes justifies in his concluding summation of the mystery.

Contrast this rubbish to the 1957 film Desk Set, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.

With a tight script and a fun plot by today’s standards, this romantic comedy depicts women working in the offices of a large media corporation on a level equal to that of men and critical to the organization’s function.

In fact, the main conflict within that film isn’t the typical feminist cliche of women being hampered and discriminated against due to their sex. Rather, the conflict arises from the introduction of new technology into the workplace.

Take another film, Deadline – U.S.A. This 1952 film starring Humphrey Bogart shows multiple women not only in positions of power and influence, but almost universally in a positive light.

It features the owner of the newspaper which Bogart’s character runs, an elderly matron. She herself summarizes the problem with many female characters in fiction today, complaining that girls in her day are “all gall and no guts.” There’s also a career woman, a tough reporter and a respected member of the newspaper staff.

Regarding the Sherlock Christmas special, I recall a 1954 American Sherlock Holmes TV serial. In one episode, an English lord’s wife takes the blame for a murder apparently committed by her husband.

This particular husband, however, is not an oafish pig. Rather, he’s a man in a position of power suddenly put in an impossible situation.

Holmes deduces that the murder was actually committed by the lord’s secretary, the wife having taken the blame in order to keep her husband free of scandal in the midst of sensitive diplomatic wrangling.

Both Holmes and the husband commend the woman for her moral courage. In fact, all of the men do so, except for the weaselly secretary, who is arrested for his crime.

This is a very different take on Sherlock Holmes than we have recently seen.

My brief survey of a few obscure films and television programs is hardly comprehensive in nature, but perhaps you’ve heard of this one: Miracle on 34th Street.

This hugely popular film featuring a female lead in a position of authority (Maureen O’Hara) was critically acclaimed when it was first released in 1947. Surely the homogeneously misogynistic world of Agent Carter wouldn’t stand for such a thing!

Unless, of course, our television programs have been lying to us.

I have long since resolved not to watch much television in general, or even movies. Modern period pieces are almost always suspect in either medium.

But I will be happy to watch any film made prior to the 1970s. I daresay that people living in those times had a much better perspective on what the world was like in their era than we do today.

Image: Scene from Deadline – U.S.A. – Source: HamptonRoads.com

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Want to Understand How the World Works? Read History!

In a letter to someone asking for a good source of information about politics, Thomas Jefferson once wrote:

“I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.”

In this rather cynical and barbed letter, Jefferson makes several reading suggestions to his correspondent, also giving his opinion on the popular press:

“General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, &c., &c.; but no details can be relied on.”

Jefferson was smart enough to know that newspapers (and their 21st century counterparts) are engines fueled by sensation, wild speculation, and excitement above all else. I don’t believe that much has changed.

Many people my age who go to college enroll in a “political science” class in a misguided effort to gain an understanding of how the world works. In reality, this rather dubious field of study is hardly up to the task. Even the realm of economics falls short.

The best way to understand the way the world works, the way that all of the great men throughout the ages did so, from Alexander the Great to Jefferson himself, is to read history.

History shows how the world works because it shows what happened that resulted in how things are today.

The press is a constant stream of random facts, many of them false.

“Political science” is little more than a term used to legitimize the idea that politics can be reduced to a uniform set of scientific principles. No term should have “science” put after it unless it involves a lot of math.

But history is different. History is the story of the world, the grand, mindbogglingly complex saga of what’s been happening on the face of dear old Earth.

There are plenty of authorities who will say silly things like “History repeats itself” or “History is written by the winners.” Neither of these are true.

But as Mark Twain, another great man from American history, once (but not really) said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The meaning of these wise words is that there are patterns to be found in history.

This isn’t because there is some inexorable force causing all the events of time to periodically go around the merry-go-round in some fashion or another which we decide to call “history.”

No, it is because history is the unpredictable story of a subject which is absolutely predictable: Man.

Man, mankind, humankind, humanity, is entirely predictable. By this I mean that human nature never changes, one of the only things that can consistently be relied upon.

And inevitably, because human nature is inclined toward evil, history can be very ugly. Conversely, because history is so ugly, it naturally follows that mankind is inclined toward evil. Both statements prove each other.

The point here is that learning history is important, because otherwise you’ll go looking for answers about how the world works from your Political Science 201 professor.

He will proceed to fill your head with nonsense about how human nature is on an upward march toward a classless utopia as envisioned by Marx. Trust me, your instructor’s predecessors have been saying that for the last 125-plus years.

Instead, please turn off the news, politely filter out your professor, and pick up a history book instead.

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